"But, I’m Aways Ready To Agree"


"We're playing Pokemon."

"I want to play Paw Patrol."

"Well, we're playing Pokemon."

"I don't want to play Pokemon."

The boys who had been playing Pokemon all morning, shrugged. One of them said, "I'm Rocky and he's Marshall . . . You can be Chase."

The girl who wanted to play with them insisted, "I don't like Paw Patrol. I want to be Picachu!"

After naming several other Paw Patrol characters, the boys shrugged again. One of them said, "Well, we don't want to play Pokemon. Maybe we can play Pokemon tomorrow."

"I hate Paw Patrol." The girl sulked over to me, "They won't let me play with them." 

I answered, "They want to play Paw Patrol and you want to play Pokemon."

"I hate Paw Patrol."

"I heard you say that." I imagine that some educators would have stepped in, but for me this was a classic example of preschool anarchy, in the best sense of that word; the word I think best describes the natural state of children at play.

The late great folk singer and labor organizer Utah Phillips summed up his idea of anarchy in the phrase, "I will not obey, but I'm always ready to agree." That's what was happening here. The boys had listened to her, they had offered her options for entering their game. They had even suggested that they would play her game later. They had shown their readiness to agree, but they weren't going to upend their game entirely.

The word anarchy tends to set people on edge, but it's how most of us experience the parts of our lives not lived under the auspices of some sort of institution. Small groups of adult friends generally don't have rules, but rather an ever-changing set of informal agreements arrived at through a readiness to agree. When someone wants to change those agreements there is a discussion, sometimes heated. Sometimes new agreements can be reached, but when that proves impossible, the ultimate option is to walk away.

I've been married to my wife Jennifer for 35 years. We've never sat down and made rules for our relationship, but almost every day finds us ready to agree. After all those years, our marriage might, from the outside, look like a kind of institution, but one of the cornerstones of what we have together is that we are both aware that either one of us is free to walk away. Indeed, I don't see how it can be otherwise in any relationship between free people. The mental experiment of that possibly happening proves incredibly painful to both of us, but we also both know that the strength of what we have is based on our readiness to agree.

The Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool where I spent my entire teaching career is officially organized along democratic lines, but in my two decades there, I only recall a handful of instances when any decision was put to a vote. Indeed, most of us viewed voting as a last resort, a sign that we had failed in our efforts at agreement. And almost every time we did vote, someone from the losing side would chose to walk away.

Newcomers often complained that our meetings too often dragged on or went in circles, and frankly they sometimes did, especially when discussing things that mattered deeply to someone. Each year, for instance, we braced ourselves for the discussion about whether or not the snacks we offered the children would be all organic. The families themselves were responsible for purchasing snacks on a rotating basis. Most didn't have a strong opinion one way or another, but there were always those who valued organic foods enough to fight for it, while others felt equally strongly that the added expense made it an unfair financial burden on lower income families. 

These community discussions could eat up hours as everyone made their various appeals, laid out their reasons, and offered their ideas. It could be tiresome for those in the middle. Indeed, there was at least one family that opted out of our school for that very reason: "I can't go through one more of those damn organic snack discussions." But most stuck it out and we always did come to an agreement. There were, however, over the years, other issues that became so divisive, like the children's divide between Paw Patrol and Pokemon, that someone felt they had no choice but to find another school. Most often, however, people would choose to set aside their objections and agree to play Paw Patrol even if they would have preferred Pokemon.

There are those that argue that one of the purposes of school is to prepare children to function within institutions. How will they ever be able to hold a job, they reason, if they don't know how to set aside their own wants and needs in deference to the rules. But most schools, as institutions, are very unlike the real world. In the real world, we all ultimately have the option to walk away. Of course, there are those who feel trapped -- in their jobs, in their marriage -- but ultimately we do have the freedom to find other jobs or  partners. And when someone is psychologically incapable of making that decision on their own, we support them in walking away.

The word anarchy is too often used as a synonym for every-man-for-himself, law-of-the-jungle chaos, which is why I don't usually speak it aloud. It's too easily misunderstood, but when I watch young children play, I see anarchy, in the best sense of that word. As perhaps the most famous American anarchist wrote, "No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness, and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure." But she knew, as I do, that the key to that lock is the ultimate freedom and power to walk away.

I could have stepped in on that girl's behalf. I could have, with the power of being an adult in a society of children, contrived to make those boys include her in their game. I would have taught the children the lesson of institutions, which is that no one is truly free, not even to choose the games they play, nor with whom they play. Contrary to the stereotypes about anarchy, it's in this type of institutional captivity that we learn the lessons of every-man-for-himself selfishness. Instead I stayed neutral, allowing the children to follow their anarchist instincts, one of which is to remain ready to agree.

As the boys, having failed to reach an agreement, went back to their game of Paw Patrol, the girl moped thoughtfully at my side. She watched the boys racing about the playground heroically, then, without a word to me tapped another girl on the shoulder and asked, "Do you want to play Pokemon with me?"

The new girl answered, referring to the friends with whom she was playing, "We're playing restaurant. Do you want to eat some soup?"

"Is it Pokemon soup?"

"Yes! It is!"

"I'm Picachu!"

"Here's your soup, Picachu."

The free live portion of Teacher Tom's Play Summit is over, but it's still not too late to join Suzanne Axelsson, Lisa Murphy, Lenore Skenazy, Maggie Dent, Kisha Reid, Mr. Chazz Lewis, Monique Gray Smith, Vanessa LaPointe and the rest of us. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow.  Click here to learn more!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Older Post Newer Post